Petitioning Shakespeare

Posted on December 11, 2009

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With the Christmas season cast upon us, I turned my attention to that most coveted of Christmas literature – a TV guide. It is, after all, one of the vital items one must possess in order to beat the Stephens’s Day hangover and prepare for the Stephens’s night bender.

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So, it only came as a slight surprise to me to see BBC’s new version of Hamlet showing on Stephens’s day itself. A specially filmed version of the play which ran in Stratford Upon Avon last year, complete with the original cast which included David Tennant in the lead and Patrick Stewart as Claudius. As the jokes ran, “My Tardis is bigger than your Enterprise!”.

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"My Tarids is bigger than your Enterprise..."

Having had the utmost pleasure of seeing the stage version in Stratford, (and sitting less than three foot from Tennant at one point and still managing to restrain myself) I am delighted to be getting the chance to see what was a fantastic piece of theatre again, though admittedly not strictly as a piece of theatre this time.

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But I started wondering how this decision had come about. Yes, the play had been wildly popular, it had sold out and it had one of the biggest BBC stars in the lead role but we’ve seen other plays sell out with big stars in them, and they haven’t been adapted to screen.

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So with a bit of digging I discovered that there had been a petition back in 2008 to make a DVD of the performance. In fact, I now remember signing the petition myself, probably twice or three times. After all, there can never be enough Minnie and Mickey Mouse’s who want to see these things.

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But the whole situation got me thinking about the nature of society as we know it now. Where before, something disappeared and it was gone, that was it. Most recently, we saw the return of the Whispa, something which never should have gone in the first place. But not only did Whispa come back to us with open arms, it’s sexy first cousin Whispa Caramel decided to come visit too. This all happened through an online petition to Cadbury. (Anyone wants to start the ball rolling for Chunky Chocs, please feel free).

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It seems that we are not simply satisfied with sitting down and letting things disappear on us anymore. More recently than Whispa even, we had the numerous Facebook pages dedicated to sending a message to FIFA to replay the Ireland-France world cup qualifier. There are almost a quarter of a million members on the main site.

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But coming back to the petition for Hamlet, well, there’s a sentence you don’t hear every day. If my old Leaving Cert class was anything to go by, Shakespeare was the spawn of Satan. Even when we watched a young, and relatively edible Mel Gibson in the role, we still wished evil death upon Hamlet (well I didn’t but then again I liked Hamlet, plus I was probably considered a bit of a loser…) A lot of people I know were glad to see the back of him, petitioning for his return would have certainly been out of the question.

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So why have the BBC spent money to film a play that has been filmed so many times, it’s hard not to trip over it on IMDB or in a video shop. We had Kenneth Brannagh cutting nothing but perhaps his toenails in a very long, overdrawn but very faithful adaptation; we had Ethan Hawke in a modernised version with undertones of capitalism; we had Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which, well, was completely off the bloody wall; and we had the quintessential Hamlet in Laurence Olivier. So the question is, do we need another one?

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The thing is, Shakespeare is something that’s not planning to go away. It’s on every education syllabus in the country, in England too and for every new generation, something new is taken from the plays. The casting of David Tennant as Hamlet guaranteed an interest level from the public that surpassed the usual theatre-goers and ever-presents. Tennant’s casting introduced kids to Shakespeare. Kids that would sit down on a Saturday evening and watch Doctor Who, suddenly wanted to go see Hamlet because David Tennant was in it.

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“To be or not to be, that is the question. Weellll….more of A question really. Not THE question. Because, well, I mean, there are billions and billions of questions out there, and well, when I say billions, I mean, when you add in the answers, not just the questions, wellll, you’re looking at numbers that are positively astronomical and… for that matter the other question is what you lot are doing on this planet in the first place and er, did anyone try just pushing this little red button?”

Neil Gaiman illustrates the collision

of pop culture with theatre culture on

hearing of David Tennant’s casting as

Hamlet.

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And silly as it may sound; jumping on the bandwagon, it may be; but when you have a vested interest in some aspect of a production, there’s the strong possibility that that interest will spill over into the content of the production too. It’s common sense. How many of us have watched something we didn’t really think was our thing, but watched it because, “hey, I could do worse than watching two hours of a good looking man talking about something I don’t understand”?

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So, in my opinion, that’s where the BBC’s decision lay. Who’s to say that someone else won’t decide to do Othello or MacBeth, and provoke similar interest? And at the end of the day, where’s the harm in this interest being awakened at an early age? I for one, loved Shakespeare in school and have since read more of his plays and seen them performed.

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Shakespearean plays are timeless and must develop for each era that studies them. Therefore, it is almost ironic that the role of Hamlet was taken by an actor who is best known for playing a quirky, time travelling alien but perhaps that character is not so different from Hamlet after all.

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I, for one, will be looking forward to re-watching the wonderful display of drama that I had the privilege of seeing on the stage in Stratford.

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Extra Note:

On the subject of Shakespeare developing for its eras, I recently read about a proposed new version of King Lear, set to be directed by Tim Roth with a specially revised script that was allegedly written by none other than Harold Pinter.

I for one, have just swallowed my teeth.

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